Scientists As Artists: Extending The Tools Of observation

The first time paleontologist Robert Bakker examined a small one-of-a-kind dinosaur skull at, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, something about it puzzled him. And while he couldn’t quite put his finger on what that something was, he was fairly sure it was not the skull of a gorgosaurus as its label indicated. So Bakker, adjunct curator of paleontology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, did what he always does— he began to draw, using a pencil to record each and every

May 1, 1989
Julia King

The first time paleontologist Robert Bakker examined a small one-of-a-kind dinosaur skull at, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, something about it puzzled him. And while he couldn’t quite put his finger on what that something was, he was fairly sure it was not the skull of a gorgosaurus as its label indicated. So Bakker, adjunct curator of paleontology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, did what he always does— he began to draw, using a pencil to record each and every trivial bump, groove, and jut of what he affectionately had nicknamed the “Cleveland critter.”

After several sketches, Bakker’s hunch proved correct. His diagrams clearly showed that anatomically, the critter’s skull had several variations from that of other, larger gorgosaur skulls. As it turned out, the Cleveland skull was not that of a gorgosaur, but of an entirely different and as-yet unidentified genus of dinosaur: a nanotyrannad lancensis or “pygmy tyrant.”

Back in 1984, drawings by Pieter Folkens, a natural scientist and science illustrator, helped marine morphologists identify a new family of whales. Working from several bones dug up, by the morphologists, Folkens was able to reconstruct on paper other muscular and skeletal features of the whale, which turned out to be one of a prehistoric species.

Scientists like Bakker and Folkens as well as Harvard biologists Bert Höldobler and E.O. Wilson—all of whom routinely reproduce their visual scientific observations on paper—once were the rule. Today, they are the exception Up until about the mid-1950s or so, basic illustration courses were a regular and required part of a scientist’s education. Today, by contrast, science training as well as funded research is focused on the design and implementation of experiments, leaving students and practitioners alike precious little time to hone sketching and illustrating skills.

There are signs of a renewed interest in science illustration, however. The University of California at Santa Cruz, for example, now offers scientists a graduate certificate in scientific illustration. Other schools, including the University of Michigan and San Francisco State, offer scientists undergraduate courses’ in basic illustration.

What’s more, scientists themselves are realizing, that illustrations produced by sophisticated photographic and electronic duplication equipment, such as scanning electron microscopes, are often inferior to the ones they produce themselves. “The SEM sees too many details, giving an almost surrealistic picture rather than a picture of what it is you need to explain,” says biologist Holidobler. As a result, many scientists, including Harvard’s Wilson— an accomplished biological illustrator as well as a noted sociobiologist—consider drawing to be one of the most valuable and irreplaceable analytic tools available to them.

The study of biological systematics is just one area where Wilson sees illustrations playing an indispensable role. “The description of species and the study of biodiversity, including the study of endangered species, requires hand-wrought illustrations, particularly of insects and other small organisms,” he says. The primary reason is that photographic equipment cannot accurately depict the details that such study requires.

Evidence of the interplay between science and art dates back to the birth of science itself. Consider Leonardo da Vinci, an eminent anatomist in his-own time, who today is best remembered as the master artist of such works as The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Galileo, the father of astronomy, was also an accomplished watercolor artist. In this century, anthropologist Mary Leakey began her career as an illustrator of ancient stone tools, and Nobel phys icist Richard Feynman leaves as part of his legacy dozens of deft and delicacy drawn pen and ink portraits.

This link between science and art is no coincidence, according to biologist Holldobler, coauthor and illustrator with Wilson of The Ants, a 824-page volume with more than 750 illustrations that is to be published early next year by Harvard University Press. Hölldobler’s view, simply stated, is that drawing makes scientists better scientists because it requires them to closely scrutinize an object or artifact, which works to sharpen their observational skills and improve their accuracy.

“Doing drawings yourself by hand requires you to examine closely and precisely details that slip by scanning electron microscopes,” notes Wilson. “Time and againin doing taxonomic drawings I’ve bit upon structures that turn out to be very, very important. This is because in handling an object and turning it over and over and tracing it out with your fingers, you discover sutures, hair patterns, and other forms that you may overlook on an electron micrograph.”

Better Communication

Drawing also helps scientists to illuminate new concepts and to more accurately communicate complex ideas. As most scientists are aware, conveying an understanding of highly specialized and sometimes esoteric topics is critical to securing funding for research and other work. This is just one area where illustrations can prove invaluable.

At the National Science Foundation, for example, Mary Clutter, director of NSF’s Division of Cellular Bioscience, says “illustrations, graphs, and charts definitely enhance a funding proposal. Reviewers are looking for ideas and a logical presentation of those ideas and it’s here that illustrations can really help.” Specifically, she notes that illustrations are particularly important to proposals dealing with cell biology and developmental biology.

But grant seekers shouldn’t expect reviewers to be wowed by glitzy color presentations alone, cautions Wilson Kent, chief of NSF’s Math and Physical Sciences Directorate. “A real gussied-up, gung-ho public relations job is going to turn off most reviewers.” In the physical sciences, he says, “very seldom does one see anything other than line drawings.”

For his part, Folkens, who has worked with hundreds of scientists on various papers, texts, and popular books, has yet to illustrate a funding proposal. He has, however, created cover illustrations for proposals submitted by researchers who have told him that the look and feel of a proposal’s cover is very important. The idea is to get reviewers’ attention Folkens says. Further, he adds, if you nave an image, you are able to communicate a concept, and you may be more successful in getting funding.”

For scientists who don’t draw, the options are doing without illustrations, hiring a professional— which can be very expensive—or discovering and developing their own skills. This is what Kendal Mor ris, an MIT graduate in cellular and molecular biology, did six years ago. Now, Morris teaches drawing to scientists enrolled in the science illustration graduate program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Morris explains that the one-year certificate program is unique among other science illustration programs, in that it requires its students to have a science background. Each year, the program, which was established in 1981, accepts eight students who are required to enroll in a core curriculum of two illustration courses per quarter. In all, six courses are required for the certificate in natural science illustration. Students in the Santa Cniz program also have the option of adding courses in botany, zoology, marine studies, and environmental studies, according to their areas of interest.

" While the program is intended primarily for students with at least a bachelor’s degree in biology or another natural science, art majors are eligible so long as their drawings exhibit a keen observational skill. Science majors, on the other hand, should be able to demonstrate a strong interest in drawing, but are not required to have had previous drawing experience."

“We’re teaching scientists who want ‘to use illustration as an adjunct to their career in science,” explains Morris, adding, “Our teaching methods are geared toward scientists, rather than artists.”

Morris herself is somewhat unique in that she chose to pursue a career in teaching science illustration rather than continuing her work as a biologist. Eventally though, she says she’ll most likely return to biology. When she does, she says, she’ll return as a far more skilled scientific observer due to her illustration work.

“To draw something accurately, you must observe it very carefully. The very act of drawing invites discovery,” she explains, adding, “Twenty or 30 years ago, drawing was done as a matter of course for most scientists. Unfortunately, this has been declining since about the 1950s with the shift away from descriptive science and toward quantitative science.”

The lack of emphasis on drawing in today’s science programs is “absolutely egregious,” according to paleontologist Bakker, who like Folkens, regards drawing as an indispensable scientific tool.

“A basic illustration course is as indispensable to a scientist as a basic nutrition course is to a medical doctor,” says illustrator and scientist, Folkens.

Adds Bakker: “Drawing is part of thinking and observing. It is what distinguishes us from other species.” Further, he says, “I urge all scientists to take at least a seminal course in drawing- from someone who knows the objects they are studying”.

Julia King is a freelance writer based in Ridley Park, Pa.